Police cannot download car’s black box data without a warrant

Police must obtain a search warrant before downloading a car’s black box data, an appeals court has ruled.

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution all citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by the state and federal government. However, in the digital age determining what information and property is protected by the Fourth Amendment can prove challenging. One case in point is the data that is stored in motor vehicles' black boxes. Such data can prove extremely relevant in criminal investigations, especially those involving accusations of DUI, but until recently it was not clear whether police needed a warrant before they could access that data. However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has affirmed that the data contained in private vehicles' black boxes are, in fact, protected by the Fourth Amendment.

What black boxes contain

Most cars today are equipped with black boxes, which contain data about things like the vehicle's steering, braking, and speed history. As a result, that data has turned up in more and more criminal cases. For example, in a 2013 Florida DUI manslaughter case, prosecutors tried to use data from the suspect's car's black box to establish the suspect's speed and braking patterns prior to and during a fatal accident that he was involved in.

However, the problem with that data was that, as the Sun Sentinel reports, it had been downloaded by police without a search warrant. As a result, a county circuit judge granted the defense's request that the data be suppressed, meaning that the jury in the trial would not be able to hear about it. The judge ruled in this way because he determined that the data stored in the black box was protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Police need a warrant

However, prosecutors appealed that decision to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The prosecutors argued that the black box data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment because the data does not contain any personal information about the driver and that it was not being used for long-term monitoring or surveillance.

The appeals court, however, rejected that argument. As the Orlando Sentinel reports, the court noted that because of the difficulty involved with accessing the data stored in black boxes, drivers and vehicle owners had a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to that information in the same way that other types of electronic data, such as smartphone data, are already protected by the Fourth Amendment. As a result, the court agreed with the defense to suppress the evidence that the police had unlawfully downloaded from the vehicle.

The prosecutor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court declined to hear the case and, in so doing, upheld the ruling of the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Criminal defense law

The case is significant for DUI and other types of cases involving automobiles across the country and could provide a new avenue for defendants to help them uphold their rights. Anybody who is facing criminal charges should talk to a defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney will assist clients with their case, including by helping them fight for their freedom and ensuring that their rights are upheld.